The Magazine

Lost in Transition

An American drama in post-Maoist China.

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By ABIGAIL LAVIN
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Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

by Susan Jane Gilman

Grand Central,

320 pp., $23.99

On the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, I sit in my neighborhood hair salon in downtown Shanghai, chatting with 25-year-old Xiao Gong as he blow-dries my hair. "Which country do you think your new president will invade first?" he asks earnestly.

Xiao Gong's coworkers, who had been playing cards and slurping spicy noodles at a table in the corner, fall silent. Their eyes rest on me expectantly, waiting for me to shed light on my country's military ambitions. "Canada," I say assuredly.

This causes a small uproar: "Stupid Egg," Xiao Gong calls me affectionately (I assume), "why would Obama invade Canada? My money's on Pakistan or Iran." When I ask Gong which country Hu Jintao will invade, I get the Stupid Egg treatment again: "China would never go to war with another country," says Gong, gesturing wildly with his blow-dryer. "Our economy is strong. You Americans, you start wars because your economy is weak!"

I don't know how to say "arms sales to Sudan" in Chinese, so I decide the best course of action is to pretend I can't hear my interlocutor over the fuzzy drone of the blow-dryer, and bury my head in a book. Twenty minutes later, thoroughly coiffed, I put on my coat and sign a receipt for Xiao Gong's services.

"American girl!" shouts the salon manager, "You're writing with your left hand!" When I tell him that I am aware of this, he tilts his head at me and squints as if contemplating an exorcism. Instead, he hands me a piece of paper and instructs me to practice writing my name with my right hand. When I tell him that I can't write with my right hand, that I have been left-handed all my life, he replies simply, "That's why you need to start practicing. Learn how to write properly," and shoos me out the door.

With daily life so rife with these sorts of confounding incidents, I thought I knew what to expect from Susan Jane Gilman's memoir of backpacking around China as a recent college graduate in 1986: Cultural misunderstandings! Weird food! Bad plumbing! (Interspersed with platitudes about cross-cultural understanding and the virtues of roughing it in youth hostels.)

Indeed, Gilman's third work of nonfiction contains some of these elements, but the extraordinary circumstances of her journey make the story much more than a typical Third World travelogue. When her traveling companion "Claire," a trust-fund baby and fellow Brown graduate, begins to unravel mentally, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven becomes a thrilling story that happens to be set in China, rather than a story about China.

Convinced that the CIA, the FBI, and Mossad are out to get her, Claire displays increasingly erratic behavior. Subsisting on orange soda and steamed rice for six weeks could drive anyone crazy, but this account suggests that her fits of paranoia are brought on by anti-malaria pills, which have been proven to cause hallucinations. Claire's delusions mingle with reality: The two backpackers actually do seem to be under surveillance from Chinese authorities, with military police and "friends from the Foreign Affairs Department" appearing at odd moments.

At the time of Gilman's visit, China had only recently opened up to independent travelers from abroad. Foreign visitors were kept on a tight leash and even required to use a different currency from Chinese citizens, which dictated the types of hotels and shops they could patronize. Gilman finds that Beijing has only three hotels that accept Western guests.

Twenty-odd years later, visitors to Beijing have more than 500 options, from the Ritz-Carlton to Howard Johnson. It is astonishing to compare Gilman's descriptions of the country in 1986 to present-day China. "Part of what made Beijing appear so gray and industrial," she reports, "was its total lack of commercialism--no billboards, neon signs, gaudy advertisements." Today, a visitor to Beijing would be hard-pressed to make it through a single afternoon without encountering a Kentucky Fried Chicken or Starbucks.

Twenty-one years before Paris Hilton's judgment--"Shanghai looks like the future!"--Gilman describes it as "a formerly splendid metropolis now moldering in dust and neglect." While the nightclubs of present-day Shanghai stay open until sunrise, Gilman found that Shanghai by night in 1986 "was almost a blackout."

Yet, amidst the stupefying rapidity of China's evolution since Gilman's adventures, a certain species endures: the self-righteous backpacker, intent on adopting a lifestyle of Third World-style deprivation in order to assuage his/her privileged guilt. Anyone who has traveled abroad knows these people: They brag about how little they miss flat-screen televisions, central heating, 7-11s, and bathing. Gilman gives these creatures a refreshing upbraiding, noting that the Chinese people whose lives are so sentimentalized by Western tourists don't "live famished, agrarian lives due to some sort of Eastern spirituality or enlightenment. Give most of the world's population our money and opportunity, and they weren't going slumming at all. They were booking a Club Med vacation in Cancún and drinking a mai tai."

There are many places to find fault with Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. The dialogue feels overly expository and contrived. The main characters address each other as "Sweetie" far too often. The title and the cover--a photograph of a naked woman obscured by a rucksack--seem manipulative, suggesting far more lasciviousness than is actually contained in the book. But the crux of the action--Claire's mental breakdown and the harrowing task of getting her home in one piece--makes for a thrilling read.

Abigail Lavin is a writer in Shanghai.